As a leading art historian, Christopher Wright has uncovered several old master paintings in public and private collections over five decades. Now he has discovered that a copy of a painting by Sir Anthony van Dyck, which he bought for himself for £65 in 1970, may actually be an original by the 17th-century Flemish court painter to King Charles I.
“I bought it from a jobbing dealer in west London,” he said. “I was buying it as a copy, as an art historian. I took no notice of it, in a strange way. The syndrome is the cobbler’s children are the worst shod. So the art historian’s collection is the least looked at.” Wright estimated the painting might be worth around £40,000, although some Van Dycks have fetched seven-figure sums.
The painting, a portrait of Isabella Clara Eugenia, Infanta of Spain and Regentess of the Spanish Netherlands, has been hanging in his sitting room for years. Now, having realised its significance, he wants it to go to a public institution. He is putting it on permanent loan to the Cannon Hall Museum, Barnsley, which boasts a collection of fine 17th-century Dutch and Flemish paintings.
Wright’s previous discoveries include a Stubbs portrait in the Ferens Art Gallery, Hull, and his publications include studies of 17th-century artists such as Rembrandt.
The painting of the infanta hung in Christopher Wright’s sitting room for years. Photograph: George Mavroedis
He looked at the infanta’s portrait more closely only after it caught the eye of a visitor to his home, Colin Harrison, senior curator of European Art at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. “He comes to see me. We chat. He says, ‘I really think your picture is by Van Dyck,’’’ said Wright.
“When you own something, you don’t take any notice of it. It was the sitter’s hands that set it off. That’s what Colin noticed.”
Harrison recalled: “In the normal way of a museum curator, Iimmediately was looking around the walls. It seemed to me that this was an interesting and possibly good picture [and] that, if you got the hands right, Van Dyck may very well have painted them.”
When buying it, Wright had assumed that it was one of numerous copies of Van Dyck’s infanta portraits in various formats, including full, three-quarter and half-length versions. His is half-length, an oil on canvas measuring 81.5cm by 70.5cm.
In each, she appears in a nun’s habit, signalling her mourning and piety after the death of her husband, Archduke Albert VII of Austria, in 1621. She became Regentess of the Netherlands and ruled in her own right until her death in 1633, abandoning the lavish jewellery and clothing in which she had been painted in her younger days.
Wright acknowledged that she had been a pious woman, a good administrator and an arts patron, but he never particularly liked the portrait. “My nickname for it was ‘Er Indoors’ after Rumpole of the Bailey. She’s a kind of doom-ridden personality.”
But, inspired by Harrison, he took it to the Courtauld Institute of Art in central London, where it has been examined and restored.
“It was dirty and had yellow varnish, but it was in decent condition,” he said. “The whole thing looks absolutely magnificent now.”
It is thought to date from between 1628 and 1632. Van Dyck had by then worked in England for King James I and as court painter to the infanta and, in 1632, he returned to England, where Charles I appointed him “principalle Paynter” and knighted him.
The Courtauld’s report, by Kendall Francis and Timothy McCall, notes that Van Dyck and his workshop produced many such infanta portraits and that it can be “very challenging” to determine the extent to which assistants were involved. They conclude: “The adroit skill leads us to tentatively propose that [it] can be attributed to Van Dyck’s workshop and that it was completed during his lifetime and under his supervision.”
Wright noted that, while some believe that the half-length version in the Walker art gallery, Liverpool, is by Van Dyck, “that is not an opinion held by the Walker”, whose online description refers to it as from Van Dyck’s studio and “possibly” the artist.
Discussing the qualities of his version, he said: “The hands are beautiful. When it’s a studio execution, the hands, they can’t do them. The structure of the face is right, her clothes are beautifully done. There’s no copyist busy here.”